The perfect picnic It's best to do a little planning before you head outdoors. The proper attitude helps make dining alfresco fresh.

August 12, 1998|By Helen Burton | Helen Burton,Chicago Tribune

There are picnics. And then there are Picnics. The difference is mainly a matter of style. You can grab an old blanket, load a foam cooler with peanut butter sandwiches, potato chips, paper plates and a six-pack of your favorite beverage and head for the beach. Essentially, what you've got there is a picnic.

What if, instead, you rustle up a color-splashed tablecloth or a couple of wild beach towels, latch onto a real picnic basket or a rope-handled kids' toy tub, fill it with fun, seasonal foods that you serve with bright acrylic tableware?

Yes, planning is involved - but not necessarily more time.

For instance, look what you can do with that humble peanut butter sandwich: For each sandwich, blend about 3 parts peanut butter to 1 part cream cheese and 1 part bottled fruit chutney (such as mango). Spread on thinly sliced raisin-nut bread. Quick as that, a sandwich with style.

A picnic blueprint

The perfect picnic can be impromptu up to a point. But a little planning will eliminate that "What did you forget this time?" question so often heard at the picnic site. Make a list and check it off as you pack.

Consider a four-part plan for a picnic so perfect an ant wouldn't dare intrude:

* Pick the people. This determines the venue and the menu. The family is fun, but consider including another family or a few friends. And if they volunteer to bring something, so much the better. Just make sure you know what they're bringing so you won't end up with too much leftover potato salad.

* Pick a place. Kids love to revisit a favorite spot, but at least once this summer try somewhere new.

* Pick a program. Once you decide where you're going, activities will suggest themselves. Remember to put on your list the appropriate paraphernalia - towels, sand toys, folding chairs, board and lawn games, cards. And check the list again before you pack up for the return trip home.

* Pick a menu. Because food is the focus of all picnic pleasures, here's your chance to be creative, so long as you obey two rules: Pack at least one thing that even picky eaters will like, and select only dishes that will travel well (see accompanying story on safety).

No rule says you have to spend hours in the kitchen readying a picnic feast. Your neighborhood deli and supermarket will be glad to do the honors, in part or in toto. Below is one such menu.

When you want to make something different, try the recipes that follow the deli picnic suggestions.

Deli picnic

The menu: cold, hand-carved Chicken 'n' Salsa, Cowboy Beans, Green Treasure Salad, parkerhouse or dinner rolls, fudge-frosted cake and fresh fruit, lemonade.

* To prepare the chicken, pick up a whole rotisserie chicken the day before and refrigerate. Fill the cavity with a mild salsa; wrap, snuggled up to a freezer pack. If your group is big on salsa, take along an extra jar.

* To make the Green Treasure Salad, take advantage of the many bagged mixes available. When you get home, transfer the greens to a large zipper bag, keeping the dressing separate. At picnic time, add dressing to the bag, zip closed and shake. For extra color and zing, toss in a few gems from the salad bar such as pitted Greek olives, baby corn or halved cherry tomatoes.

* To keep your foods cold en route to the picnic, consider this practical idea suggested in the "Pillsbury Party Cookbook." Pick up a carton of deli coleslaw - made with a vinegar dressing - and freeze it for at least 24 hours. The slaw will thaw en route to the picnic, keeping other foods cold along the way.

* Rolls are neater if you split and butter them at home. Or try the new flavored spreads in the dairy case.

* Instead of canned beans, try some from the deli or the bean-and-meat combos, such as Lloyd's Cowboy Beans, found in the meat case. Heat the 20-ounce tub in your microwave and wrap well to keep hot.

* Fun touch: Tie a few colorful helium balloons to a liter of soda. Not only are they decorative, but if the kids wander away, the balloons can help them locate your picnic site more easily.

Safety tips for picnickers

* Keep your hot dish safely hot in one of the new, padded carriers, or wrap it in several layers of newspaper. Pack cold dishes with ice or freezer gel packs. Particularly susceptible to bacteria are dairy products, fish, meat and poultry.

* Unless you're sure of the water supply, take bottled or filtered water to drink.

* Ice lasts longer frozen in juice cans instead of quick-to-melt ice cubes.

* Food you pack still frozen will probably be just right when you're ready to eat.

* To safely cool hot food, transfer it to a cool container and refrigerate promptly to keep bacteria from growing.

* Pack moistened towelettes or baby wipes.

* If you use an insect spray, wait 15 minutes before taking out any food.

Spicy Cabbage Salad With Chili-Rubbed Flank Steak

Makes 6 servings

DRESSING:

3 large cloves garlic, minced

1 piece (1-inch) fresh ginger, minced

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons each sugar, fish sauce or vegetable oil

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